Desktop version

Home arrow Sociology arrow Humanitarian ethics : a guide to the morality of aid in war and disaster


Trusting Our Ethical Expertise

The Chilean philosopher and neuroscientist Francisco Varela has usefully described practical ethics as moral coping. In our busy and very practical daily lives we routinely confront ambiguous situations, obvious wrongs and desirable goods. We deal with difficult moral moments with our family and our work colleagues, with pushy strangers in a bus queue and as we compete with one another over things we want. We do not always stop to compute these situations in an elaborate rational way that makes ethics an abstract and complex intellectual pursuit. Nor should we get so bogged down. We “do ethics” hundreds of times a day and typically get on with our moral lives in a very practical way. We use our sense of right and wrong, our empathy, things we have learned and memories of situations we have heard about or experienced before, and have a natural “readiness for action”.

We humans are very skilled animals, always working, moving, talking, thinking, feeling, making, meeting, eating, surviving and thriving. We have extraordinary expertise in many things and so we should trust our essential "ethical expertise” as well, recognizing that we do a lot of ethics instinctively, deliberately and constantly as one of our many social skills. We have an ethical disposition we can trust.

Following Mencius, the great Chinese philosopher from the fourth century BC, Varela sees our ethical expertise operative in three core skills: extension, attention and intelligent awareness. As we saw earlier in this book, we have the ability to think and feel beyond ourselves and so extend our moral skills to others. We have a capacity to give great attention to what needs doing. And we are able to keep an intelligent awareness of the world around us so that we can recognize affinities between situations that we are experiencing now and others we have experienced before. Together these three skills enable us to cope and improve as moral beings. Varela’s understanding of ethical expertise suggests that "ethics is closer to wisdom than to reason, closer to understanding what is good than to correctly adjudicating particular situations” and that "the situations in which we exercise ethical expertise far outnumber those in which we must exercise explicit ethical deliberation”.14

We all have this understanding of what is good and a natural ethical expertise for doing good. I hope this book has helped to reinforce this ethical expertise in humanitarian workers. I hope that reading its various chapters will keep aid professionals and their agencies ethically fit so that they can cope more easily with moral problems, large and small, in their vital daily work of respecting, protecting and saving human life.

Found a mistake? Please highlight the word and press Shift + Enter  

Related topics